'Billy the Kid' Team Unpacks Reinventing the Classic Western for Epix Drama

'The West as we've known it for so long in cinema didn't exist,' says writer and executive producer Michael Hirst.
by Amber Dowling — 

Tom Blyth in 'Billy the Kid'


The real Billy the Kid may be one of the most famous outlaws and gunfighters in the American Old West, having killed eight men before he himself was shot and killed at the age of 21. However as the incoming series on EPIX sets to prove, there's a lot about Billy viewers don't know. 

"I was familiar with his name but really didn't know anything about his story," star Tom Blyth, who plays the title character in Billy the Kid, tells Metacritic. "I thought of him as this cold-blooded, legendary killer. Doing a deep dive, I realized he was a far more complex human being than I first thought." 

When the eight-part, first season debuts April 24 on EPIX, writer and executive producer Michael Hirst (thus far best known for Vikings and The Tudors) hopes to peel back the complicated layers of Billy's life, beginning with his childhood. Jonah Collier plays Young Billy, a kid who spends his early years in the slums of New York with his Irish immigrant parents (Eileen O'Higgins and Joey Batey). The story then traces the dangerous journey Billy — then known as Henry McCarty — and his family took to the New West in hopes of a better life. What they find there, however, is beyond devastating.  

"Obviously he was an outlaw. People believe he must have been a nasty piece of work," Hirst, who, like Blyth, used to watch Westerns with his mother in the U.K., says. "Well, nothing could be further from the truth. He was a very sensitive young man who loved his mother and was very deeply affected by her Catholicism. He had a moral hook; she gave him a sort of moral bedrock. He always said himself, he was more sinned against than sinning. I wanted to understand what he meant by that." 

"He had this tremendous desire to be legitimate and he did not actually intend to live a life of crime," adds executive producer Donald De Line. "He had to put food on the table, his mother was having a hard time surviving and feeding the family. He went down that path out of necessity. It was a brutal and lawless place and people were doing what they could to survive." 

Both Hirst and De Line describe that version of the West as the "pre-West." There are no wide-brimmed Stetsons and saloon doors swinging in the dusty wind as tumbleweeds roll by. Everything, from Billy's eccentric wardrobe to the undeveloped buildings and sludge-slogged tents, are very much a new version of the West that hasn't been shown on TV and film before.  

"The West as we've known it for so long in cinema didn't exist. It's muddy and it's horrible and it's vile. To survive is going to be extremely hard," Hirst says. "We built our own little townships and our rudimentary housing and that gives it a more authentic and real feeling." 

"We made a very specific decision to avoid a lot of the tropes you've seen," adds De Line. "We wanted to see different cultures and different things coming into the West as it was being formed." 

Those elements are also integral in terms of shaping who Billy was as a character. Hirst put Blyth through the ringer in the audition process, at one point even asking him to sing on tape when he realized Billy sang. Blyth recalls breaking out a guitar and singing the old Irish folksong "Raglan Road." He also recalls getting over his fear of horses (he fell off one when he was a child), spending his time in quarantine practicing his gun-spinning and de-holstering skills, and learning other essentials in order to embody Billy.  

"It was essential I learned the skills Billy had," he says. "With the authenticity of the show, which is palpable from the first episode, it adds like a 90% authenticity level. Most of the time they don't have to cut away to a stunt person — they can stay on me running up to a gallop or running in amongst like 100 head of cattle, lassoing cattle, spinning the gun and stuff like that." 

Filming the series in Calgary, Alta., home of many modern-day cowboys, also helped to set that mood. Blyth reveals one of the first things he did after he was released from his mandatory travel isolation period was attend the Calgary Stampede, which is a 10-day celebration of Western culture with barrel racing, horses, and other celebratory events.  

"We were able to be immersed in this incredibly Western, cowboy celebration, which gave us a good start out of the gate," he adds. "Calgary itself is majestic. It was easy to get up at 5 a.m., drive out to location, get on a horse and believe I was in that world. You ride right into the dust at a full gallop and you come to a stop, and you look up and there's the Banff mountains in the distance and the Rockies. You can imagine what it must have been like to ride out there for the first time and to see the sprawling landscape — especially if you were from the slums of New York like Billy was."  

Billy the Kid airs Sundays at at 10 p.m., beginning April 24, on EPIX.